Russia’s loopholes create opportunity for Ukraine, Western officials say

WASHINGTON — Early in the war in Ukraine, troop shortages and equipment problems forced Russia to narrow its mission, abandon its assault on Kyiv and focus its offensive in the east.

Now, as the fighting enters its sixth month, critical manpower and equipment problems could once again slow Russian operations and give the Ukrainian counteroffensive a better chance of success, officials said. Americans and Europeans.

Signs of Russia’s challenges abound: artillery shells missing their targets, interceptions of Russian soldiers complaining that they were given old tanks, and a steep rise in the number of dead and wounded in its military ranks.

But unlike at the start of the war, it could become more difficult for Russia to reset its strategy and recover, at least in the short term.

US and European officials say few powers have conquered a country and destroyed an opposing army with a mostly volunteer force, as Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is trying to do. But Mr Putin has shown no indication that he wants any sort of large-scale project, which would amount to admitting to his country that the fight in Ukraine will be a long war, not a short operation.

Russia has announced, and the West has predicted, various pauses in the war. After the fall of city ​​of Lysychansk last month, for example, Russian commanders said their forces would pause and reset, but artillery attacks continued.

This time, NATO and other officials say the reality on the ground should force the Russian military to slow operations to reinforce depleted units, better protect its supply lines and move in new equipment. These officials admit it is possible that Mr Putin could override the advice of his officers and order the campaign east to continue through the summer. For all of Russia’s equipment and manpower problems, high energy prices mean that Moscow makes enough money to fund its military.

The expected Russian break comes after the bloodiest phase of the war for both sides. Ukraine and Russia have lost thousands of soldiers, including some of their best and most experienced front line troops, in the last weeks of a fierce artillery battle which destroyed towns and villages on the way of the Moscow army.

Russian shortcomings have created an opportunity for the Ukrainian military, spurring its decision to launch a counteroffensive, said senior US military officials and US lawmakers who recently visited Ukraine. More Ukrainian infractions, most likely in the south, are likely in the coming weeks, those officials said.

“The Russians are exhausted and you don’t want to give them time to regroup and rest,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee who visited Ukraine last month. with a small group of legislators. “I understand the desire to hit when they’re tired.”

Russia has committed nearly 85% of its army to combat in Ukraine, drawing on troops from the country’s Far East and deployments around the world, a senior Defense Ministry official said recently. . The Russian military, European officials said, has struggled to bring reserves and new recruits into combat.

Estimates of the number of Russian soldiers killed range from 15,000 to over 20,000, with thousands more injured or missing. Even taking the most conservative figure, according to US and allied intelligence officials, Russia has lost more soldiers this year than the Soviet Union lost in nearly a decade of fighting in Afghanistan.

In its search for recruits, Russia had to lower its standards, Western intelligence officials said. Mr Putin signed a law eliminating the age limit for Russians to sign their first contract to join the army. Western officials also said they assessed the Russian military was lowering health and fitness standards and granting waivers to people with criminal records.

Russia has tried to fill some of its labor shortages by using mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military force linked to Mr Putin. US intelligence reports have indicated that while mercenaries could make a difference in specific battles, there are not enough of them to make a strategic difference in a larger war, according to officials briefed on the assessments.

U.S. officials said Russia’s biggest problem was Putin’s reluctance to announce a larger project. So far, the Russian military has not been able to recruit enough men quickly enough to compensate for soldiers killed and wounded in battle.

Even if Russia decided to put more reservists and conscripts into service, Western intelligence officials say Mr Putin would face a serious bottleneck. The Russian military has already deployed numerous officers and instructors who would train conscripts or reservists on the front lines, a move one Western intelligence official likened to eating corn seed. Russia delayed its spring draft by two months in a sign it could not train those ready to serve, Western officials said.

Although not as acute as the labor shortage, Russia’s equipment problems are significant. Russian forces, for example, had to replace newer, more modern tanks with older versions. According to some intelligence estimates, Russia has lost a third of its tanks. As it depletes its stockpiles of precision-guided missiles, Russia has relied on artillery systems. But Ukraine’s use of sophisticated weapons has forced Russia to push them away from the front lines, diminishing their effectiveness.

Russia has a huge stockpile of artillery shells, the main ammunition it uses at this stage of the war, US officials said. But even with these there are problems, according to Western intelligence officials. Many age and have been stored in poor conditions, reducing their effectiveness by making their fuses unreliable.

US and European export controls have effectively put pressure on Russian arms manufacturers, at least temporarily, forcing them to slow down or halt production of high-end guided munitions and other advanced munitions. The shortage forced the Russians to be judicious in their targeting – one reason the military limited its attempts to hit moving convoys and instead focused on stationary targets like Ukrainian warehouses.

In recent weeks, Russia has used an anti-aircraft system, the S-300, to strike ground targets near the city ​​of Mykolaiva sign, according to Ukrainian officials, that Russia lacks missiles better suited to such attacks.

Senior US military officers said Russian shortages of manpower, weapons and ammunition were already being felt on the battlefield. New Ukrainian tactics—made possible by Western equipment—also effectively reduced the number of shells available to Russian front line troops at any one time.

Ukrainian soldiers used Weapons supplied by the Americans such as High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, to destroy dozens of Russian command posts, air defense sites and ammunition depots, disrupting the flow of ammunition to Russian frontline forces.

Brig. Christopher King, the most senior British officer in a military cell in Stuttgart, Germany, which coordinates the flow of donated Western arms and ammunition to Ukraine, said the HIMARS and other artillery rockets have allowed the Ukrainians to slow down the “supply capacity” of the Russians. themselves, which is exactly why we provided them with this.

Ukrainian artillery and tanks, of course, were also destroyed. And a senior Ukrainian military official said that, like the Russian military, Ukraine lost some of its best officers and soldiers in the first months of the conflict. But, the official added, Kyiv had many more officers with years of front-line combat experience, which proved decisive in the first phase of the war.

US and Western intelligence assessments support the idea that the next few weeks or months will be critical for Ukraine. Even if the Russian forces cannot be pushed back significantly, a strong counter-offensive could increase confidence among Ukraine’s allies.

US and UK officials said Ukrainian officials said they understood they had a limited time to take advantage of Russia’s apparent weakness.

Rep. Michael Waltz, Republican of Florida, who was part of the congressional delegation to Kyiv, said the United States should send more rocket artillery and other advanced weapons to Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky has told members of Congress that if Mr Putin locks down the current frontlines, Ukraine will struggle to remain a viable state.

“Zelensky thinks the Russians are in a moment of weakness as they regroup to keep moving ahead of winter,” Mr. dit Valse said.

Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting from Odessa, Ukraine. Anton Troyanovski also contributed to the report.